As we travel through this world, living day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, we can miss how God’s hand is working in the big picture. We can get so busy with the details of the temporal, that we don’t take the opportunity to reflect on how it all plays into the eternal. Even if things seem to be a little out of control and the pace of life seems too fast, God knows what He’s doing… and He really is the one in control. Obedience brings blessings that we don’t even see coming!
I’d like to share an example. The pieces came together so slowly, one could miss God’s hand moving them together! From Albany to Maridi to Juba to Denver to Arua… It started almost 20 years ago…
The beginning: Albany to Maridi (South Sudan)
The Diocese of Albany has been involved in God’s mission in South Sudan for almost two decades. Missionaries from EDOA have partnered with CMS-Ireland and members of the Diocese of Down and Dromore on many occasions, to visit those who have felt forgotten in the war-torn and impoverished country. We have walked beside them on the red clay paths and ministered hand in hand with them as medical teams, construction teams, women’s empowerment teams. And the children, women, and men of South Sudan have taught us so much about what resilience is and what it looks like… not only in poverty and need, but in faith. “Jesus is Lord, even in sorrow… Let Him be praised!” “God saved us for a reason. We need to wait patiently for what He has in store for us.”
In a society that has seen horrific conflict, war, violence and torture for decades, Lamentations is the story of the people. There is much to hope for;
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:19-24
The Lord is their portion. He is their provider, their teacher, their healer, their savior, their hope, and their peace. Peace is the prayer of the nation. As Christians, we know that Peace is more than an absence of conflict. It is the presence of Jesus Christ. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. John 14:27
But an absence of conflict is a good place to start seeking the face of God.
Through the many mission journeys to South Sudan, EDOA has joined in the prayers for peace. We rejoiced with our brothers and sisters there on July 9, 2011, when South Sudan became an independent nation. Unfortunately, the core issues underlying conflict and violence had never been healed, and the unresolved pain and trauma of generations of (South) Sudanese found a new outlet. Africa has a Tribal system that runs deep and strong through blood lines. There remains an issue between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes and oddly enough they are the tribes at the head of the political leadership of this new country. The struggle for political power of the leadership of South Sudan has continued the unrest, as this conflict trickles down through the ranks. The factions that had once joined forces to fight a common enemy and bring peace to South Sudan, began to see each other as the enemy. In December 2013, conflict and violence once again took root and spread throughout the country.
When violence and trauma are your story, and your litany of pain, sorrow, and anger spans multiple generations, how do you change the narrative? What story do you tell yourself, your children, your neighbors and friends?
From Albany to Juba (Capitol of South Sudan):
Rev. Donna Steckline and I had each visited South Sudan and had seen and heard firsthand how the pain and suffering of generations had affected the people in body, mind, and spirit. God has given us both a deep, abiding love for His children in South Sudan, and has forged relationships that withstand separation over geographical and cultural boundaries. I was reminded of the strength and the power of those relationships when Bishop Love and I visited Juba for the Enthronement of our mission partner, friend, and brother in Christ, Archbishop Justin Badi, in April 2018. He referred to EDOA as his “family from America”. Such deep relationships are built over time and strengthened through prayer for each other. Prayers for peace in South Sudan are breathed daily, and it is a gift of love to them, knowing they are not forgotten.
From Albany to Denver:
The mighty hand of God moved Rev. Donna Steckline and me to Denver, Colorado in early May 2018 for an AFRECS (American Friends of the Episcopal Church in the Sudans) conference. We were surprised and humbled by the invitation. What could two women from Albany offer at a conference titled “Strengthening the Peacemakers”? We stepped forward in obedience and joined around 100 (South) Sudanese Diaspora from the North American community, and American friends and mission partners. We experienced three days of incredibly honest teaching on Trauma Healing by Dr. David Anderson Hooker from Notre Dame University, and a series of Bible Studies and conversations about who the Diaspora were, and how they could contribute to the peace of South Sudan. Rev. Donna and I served as facilitators for some of the small group discussions, where pain and hope held equal seats at the table. Discussions were honest and passionate, yet respectful.
These discussions are important because the diaspora living here in North America remain in contact with family and friends in South Sudan. They truly stand in a position to make a defining difference in this peace-making process. Imagine, if you will, an act that violates one of your family members back in South Sudan. They share this with you, and you have to formulate a response. The old “tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye” adage is one that has propogated the violence in the homeland.
But by encouraging non-violence as a response, this cycle can be broken. During the AFRECS conference it became apparent that a change in thinking and response needed to occur, if peace is to be a reality. The diaspora cannot continue to foster the cycle of violence and expect peace. Our prayers of support and encouragement are crucial in effecting change. Our encouragement to change the response to acts of violence can help to make change. But inward spiritual healing must also be sought.
The Bible studies and discussion sessions were powerful and meaningful to every attendee. One session taught on Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones. After reading the scripture and hearing the teaching, the small groups were asked to consider what part of the body they were, and what gift they could bring to the whole as the dried bones of South Sudan were brought back to unity and wholeness through the power of God. The diaspora were able to see themselves in those dry bones, as a part of the body that was dead, and dry; and to see that God could breathe life and purpose back into their brokenness.
By the end of the conference, one woman who had previously voiced condoning violence for violence, offered to support the schooling of a child of the ‘opposing’ tribe in a refugee camp. She stood and expressed the change in her thinking and in her heart, then walked to the gentleman (with connections to a refugee camp), handed him money and promised to provide for a child of his choosing, until adulthood. This step toward making peace, reconciliation and a way forward was very hopeful and encouraging. Her example stands to champion change toward peace and reconciliation for this new country, South Sudan.
Through the course of the weekend, the Holy Spirit moved through the people, binding them together with a common vision and purpose. They drafted an invitation to the diaspora who could not attend, to join them in this peacemaking – from where they stood, starting today.
From Albany to Arua (Uganda):
In June, Linda Abwa from CMS-Ireland visited the EDOA Convention and updated attendees on the current situation in South Sudan. Albany has not been able to visit Maridi in six years and we have been concerned about how we could best support our brothers and sisters there. Linda informed us that she was putting together a trip in October, to Arua. Since travel to Maridi and surrounding areas by road is still unsafe, Linda is planning a trip just over the border in Uganda.
This mission will bring together leaders from 5 CMSI link Dioceses in South Sudan: Archbishop Justin Badi, and the Bishop, Diocesan Secretary/Development Officer, Mothers Union Representative, and Youth Representative from the Dioceses of Ibba, Maridi, Olo, Yei, and Kajo-Keji; Reconcile – a peace and reconciliation NGO in Arua; and a team of 13 from Ireland and Albany Diocese – all with links to one of 5 Dioceses. Rev. Donna and Kevin Steckline, and Rev. Patti Johnson will represent Albany.
The main aim of the program is to discuss our partners’ experience of peace and reconciliation in their Diocese and empower them to move forward in positive ways. (So THAT’S why we went to Denver!). The Bishops expressed their need ‘to be heard’; some of the seminars will allow them to listen to each other’s stories and acknowledge their experiences. The seminar content for the peace and reconciliation program will focus on personal retreat and healing for our partners and those to whom they minister, the theology of peace and reconciliation, the role of the church and how the church can become a better advocate for peace at a national and community level.
Other seminars will focus on partnership, Youth, and Mothers Union. On Sunday the group will worship in the Refugee Camp parishes, and the following week will be spent in the camps on various ministries. We are praying to be able to offer medical care and education, prayer ministry, and Days for Girls.
God has been planning and moving among EDOA, CMSI, Down and Dromore, and South Sudan for a very long time. Despite what some may hear, South Sudan is not a “God-forsaken” country. God is there. He never left. He is moving. His plan for them is perfect and timely. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” -Jeremiah 29:11-14
Perhaps our part of God’s work in Sudan and South Sudan and with the diaspora is to encourage them to respond with acts of kindness and love instead of the typical response of violence. The Golden rule, and greatest Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let us pray for reconciliation and Love to abound in relationships.
We bid your prayers for South Sudan, the diaspora, this mission and each team member. May God be glorified, and may His peace reign.